Right Said Undead

You want in on a little secret? Reviewing games is generally pretty easy. You write your opinions down, justify it with your experiences, and maybe even deliver a verdict if you fancy yourself a high-falutin critic type. Talking about a game you feel strongly about, positive or negative, is easy because it comes from a place of passion. What’s truly difficult is the near-miss. The game that had a clear goal, and maybe even succeeds at elements in its pursuit of said goal, but just doesn’t quite stick the landing. Vamp on the Batwalk is one of those games. My plays of this game left me split down the middle with elements that entertained and frustrated in equal measure. My hope is that by the end of this you, reader, will have a good idea as to which side of the fence you land on.

Let’s start with first impressions – this game looks fantastic. Any game that uses its box as a component, fully embracing the toyetic charm that tabletop games are uniquely capable of, is already most of the way to a full-on charm offensive and Vamp is no exception. Strutting your vampires down the walk to track score is an inspired production decision and all the art looks equal parts cool and cute. Coote? Probably not that. Point being on the aesthetic front I have absolutely no notes, no critique. It manages to insert a healthy amount of memorable character and table presence into a genre typically devoid of it.

Though perhaps there’s just a bit too much memorable character, because the cards themselves also portray identical characters as the players’ score markers and player aids. I am not exaggerating when I say that every game of this we played had more than one instance of players winning a trick with a particular suit, moving the matching marker, then remembering that their actual marker was a different character and having to correct the board. Yes each player has a player aid to keep track of who’s who but it’s still a mistake that’s likely to rear its head more than once. Cards and numbers games benefit from clarity, and this is a rare case where less card art may have been beneficial.

Gameplay-wise it’s a trick taking game, kind of. There are some key differences and exceptions: it’s not a must-follow game, not every card has a number on it, and your hand is turned away from you because vampires can’t see themselves in mirrors. It’s a clever piece of thematic integration and the critical element that makes the game stand out, but it’s also the one that most un-trick-taker-ifies the game feel. It’s less about playing into tricks and more about trying to deduce what you’re holding in the first place. This is a great hook! There are other games that have tried similar – Pikoko and Luz come to mind – but none quite the way Vamp does, and I always applaud attempts at innovation. Breaking the boundaries of its genre is an admirable goal, but it’s in the execution where the wardrobe malfunctions start to rear their heads.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that Vamp has more deduction DNA than trick taker. Not every card is dealt so your information isn’t perfect, which is good! Deduction games need uncertainty, elements of surprise, information to parse and make educated guesses with. But Vamp’s method always feels like it goes too far. Regardless of how many players you have a significant proportion of the cards (2 parts of the 7 groups) will go undealt, and because these are shuffled that likely means some suits will be fully dealt and others will barely be represented. Some players will immediately be able to suss out a few of their cards for sure while others are essentially forced to stumble in the dark. Strong and weak hands are normal in trick takers, certainly, but the genre typically has you knowing where you stand from the jump. In Vamp you either know or you don’t, which means you can go entire hands without ever really knowing anything.

This flying by the seat of your pants gameplay is oddly incongruent with the rock-paper-scissors element the game is hinged on. Each suit contains seven cards: #1-5, a star, and a garlic. The first card determines the lead, but since there’s no following it just means high card/suit. Stars steal the lead regardless of color and beat all numbers. Garlic is useless on its own, to the point where if a garlic is the lead it basically doesn’t exist, but it beats stars outright and becomes the strongest card if one is present. Couple that with the ability to “steal the show” for an instant point and a lead change if you ever match the lead card’s value (including symbols) and it’s a surprisingly intricate system that’s interesting to parse in play.

In a more traditional game this sort of risk management and hand evaluation would make for some really interesting choices, but Vamp’s wonky information distribution often makes strong plays feel more like the result of straight up luck as opposed to a clever maneuver on your part. Stealing the show in particular is rarely something that’s done intentionally until the latter half of any given hand. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still fist-pump-worthy when it happens, but I can’t help but feel like it’s falling short of its potential. Without the means to really finesse the play it’s often reduced to just winging in a card and hoping for the best.

There’s also the potential issue of information overload. Trick takers by their nature are often breezy experiences with quick choices. Vamp forces players to evaluate several more players’ hands than these games normally do and determining the winner of a trick takes longer than actually playing it does. Having 4 separate possible ways to win a trick plus scene-stealing means it’s never clear who’s winning until all the cards are played, which does create some excitement, but this is dampened by the aforementioned winging of cards most players end up doing.

And this encapsulates the struggle I have with Vamp: it feels at odds with itself at every turn. Short, yet an exception-heavy rules explanation that almost trips people up by design. Trick taking, but without almost any of the traditional trick taker attributes that would normally guide new players. Deduction, yet constant chaos. I think I understand how this game is meant to be played and enjoyed – as a light party-ish thing you break out for laughs – yet it’s a cards and numbers affair with a tricky RPS core. The casual groups I introduced it found it a bit too mechanically dense for them to ever get into a groove, and for the card game vets it was a bit too chaotic to find its footing, but that doesn’t mean it can’t hit well for tables that land in the middle. Those tables apparently just aren’t mine, and that makes me kind of sad because I mean – look at it.

Review copy provided by Jellyfish Game Studios.